Oct. 21, 2014
CIVIL wars raged over the last three decades in the African countries of Liberia and Sierra Leone. Now, an “invisible enemy” – the Ebola virus – is wreaking havoc on the farmers who had just started to bring new economic vitality to a region desperately in need.
“Ebola is a disease against agricultural productivity, a disease against youth and a disease that destroys food production,” Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma said in a live satellite address to those attending the World Food Prize Borlaug Dialogue on Oct. 16.
More than 7,000 cases of Ebola have already been confirmed in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone (the three countries at the core of the epidemic), and more than 3,300 people have died.
Since the first case in May, more than 2,900 people in Sierra Leone now have been infected, with just 517 survivors. The disease mostly has affected 15- to 20-year-olds. More than three-fourths of the country’s population is under 40, leaving the fate of agriculture up to its young people, Koroma said.
“We will defeat Ebola and its deadly ramifications, I strongly do believe, because the energy for life is strong in a young country and in the hold of Ebola,” Koroma said.
Kanayo Nwanze, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, explained that 40% of farms were abandoned in the areas affected due to fears of contracting the disease. As 80% of farmers produce 80-90% of the food consumed in the region, Ebola has had a significant impact on both national and regional food security.
Stephen O’Connell, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) chief economist, reported that food prices recently have begun to rise sharply in urban areas in Liberia, reflecting slowdowns in container shipping and uncertainty about future supplies. Regional trade has been reduced by land border closings. Internal transport has slowed, reflecting official and unofficial restrictions on movement and higher fuel costs.
The expatriate economy – with its incomes and expertise – has thinned out. Some urban enterprises are shedding workers as many government contracts are being cut back or put on hold.
Florence Chenoweth, Liberia minister of agriculture, noted that Liberia had previously attracted $17.6 billion of foreign investment to help it rebuild from 24 years of civil war, and almost $7 billion of that was in agriculture. Ebola has caused all of those investors to leave, thus abandoning work on rebuilding roads and infrastructure, such as mills to export palm oil.
Sierra Leone minister of agriculture Joseph Sam Sesay said the agriculture industry had helped fuel double-digit economic growth, but the outbreak reached the country’s borders during the peak of cultivation season for coffee and cocoa, and now, the economy’s annual growth has plummeted to 3%, with fingers crossed that it won’t go any lower.
In Sierra Leone, farmers make up roughly two-thirds of the population, and about 55% of the people are considered poor. “With Ebola, that has exacerbated the situation,” Sesay said. “Some families and some farmers have been wiped, literally, wiped away.”
In 2006, Liberia had to totally rebuild its agriculture sector and looked to slowly encourage those in refugee camps to go back into the fields. The war had left the country with no roads or bridges, forcing a total infrastructure start-over.
On the agricultural front, Chenoweth said after those long years, there was no germplasm – not even a seed of rice to put into the ground – and no animal life. Before Ebola hit, Liberia had already become self-sufficient in seed production and no longer had to import rice to meet its domestic needs.
Nwanze said preparations need to be made now for the aftermath of the outbreak, which he hopes will be stemmed before the end of the year. If not, there will be a major regional food crisis, with areas having a glut of food because they can’t sell it while other areas have a total lack of food and soaring market prices.
Sesay said monetary assistance is needed right now.
USAID just announced an additional $142 million in humanitarian projects and grants to combat Ebola in West Africa, bringing total U.S. assistance to more than $258 million.
Chenoweth said Liberians are very determined, resilient people. “We will end the Ebola story and rebuild our country’s agricultural sector,” she said.
Still, the fight is far from over.
“The virus is still ahead of us. We must sprint very fast to get ahead of the virus and stop it,” Koroma said. The very survival of his country depends on it.